Egyptian government warns against demonstrations during presidential election Wednesday
CAIRO, Egypt – The government warned on Tuesday that it would not tolerate election day protests, and the opposition fretted about possible ruling party dirty tricks in Egypt’s first contested presidential vote.President Hosni Mubarak, who has led Egypt for 24 years and is certain to win Wednesday’s balloting, calls the election a major step toward greater democracy in a country that has seen only authoritarian rule for more than a half century.But many Egyptians are skeptical, and the opposition says the vote will do nothing to diminish Mubarak’s power.Hours before voting started, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif took a tough line, warning that demonstrations were banned for election day.The reformist group Kifaya had called for a rally Wednesday in one of Cairo’s main squares to protest “corruption and oppression” and the continuation of Mubarak’s rule.”If there are demonstrations, they will be sabotaging the elections,” Nazif told reporters. “It’s the responsibility of the police and the security forces to secure the voters’ rights to cast ballots.”George Ishaq, one of the founders of Kifaya, vowed that the group – whose name means “Enough” – would go ahead with the protest.”We have taken the right to demonstrate, and we are not waiting for anybody to give us permission,” he said. “All I can say is that the whole world will be watching.”Brig. Mahrous Shabayek, the Interior Ministry official in charge of elections, was quoted by Egyptian news media as saying demonstrations on election day were “illegitimate” and would “be faced with firmness.”There have been several instances of police violence against demonstrators this year. During the May referendum that passed constitutional amendments setting up Wednesday’s multicandidate presidential election, plainclothes officers and government supporters beat protesters. Kifaya activists also were beaten during a protest in July.Some 32.5 million Egyptians were registered to cast ballots Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The election commission said counting could take up to three days and final results would not come until Saturday.Until now, the 77-year-old Mubarak has been re-elected in referendums in which he was the only candidate and voters’ only option was saying “yes” or “no” to his continuing in power.Mubarak has touted his decision to allow election challengers as a major reform and has promised further democratic steps if re-elected to a fifth 6-year term.The president faced nine competitors but only two were considered significant – Ayman Nour of the opposition al-Ghad party and Noaman Gomaa of the Wafd party.The prime minister said Tuesday that the vote will be fair, but opposition parties charged that the government was already trying to sway the election.Past parliamentary votes have been marred by widespread reports of vote rigging. In the May 25 referendum, the official turnout was 54 percent, but judges who supervised the polling stations denied that figure and said it didn’t exceed 3 percent.Judges will monitor Wednesday’s vote as well. But the election commission, made up of judges appointed by Mubarak, rejected an administrative court ruling allowing independent monitors into poll stations. A higher court on Tuesday backed the commission.Each candidate is also allowed to have representatives at the polling station.Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party said it would welcome monitoring of the polls by nongovernmental organizations, a top party official said, “but the president will not go out and criticize the election commission.””We hope they will be able to monitor the polling stations from inside and outside,” added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.But Wafd party also officials complained that until Monday the government did not provide the voting lists needed to determine who the party can send to monitor voting stations. A party monitor must come from the station’s district.”We have been fooled by the Interior Ministry and the election commission,” said Hossam al-Kholi, a senior member of Wafd. “The only lists we received, two days ago, were full of mistakes.”Wafd campaign spokesman Mohammed Sherdi claimed other violations. He said police in the Suez Canal city of Port Said – a center of Wafd support – had collected the driving licenses of taxi drivers to force them to carry government supporters in groups to the polls.”They are blackmailing people to serve such a corrupt government. I defy anybody who goes to Port Said and visit police stations and see how many cars are parking in front of it,” Sherdi said.